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No Deal, No Water?

Times Staff Writers

After failing to entice the Imperial Irrigation District to sell part of its huge water allotment, federal and state officials Tuesday threatened to take it away -- unless the district rescinds its rejection of a water sale vital to helping coastal Southern California avoid future shortages.

Assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley, the Bush administration’s point man on Western water issues, said the federal government may declare that farmers in the Imperial Valley have been wasting water, the first step toward reducing the amount of Colorado River water -- 75% of the state’s share -- flowing to desert agriculture. Farmers would not be paid for their lost water.

Raley suggested that Interior Secretary Gale Norton may discuss such a step as early as Monday in a speech at a water convention in Las Vegas.

Raley also said that unless the Imperial district agrees to the deal with the San Diego County Water Authority by Dec. 31, the federal government will immediately end its practice of allowing the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to receive large amounts of surplus water from the Colorado River beyond its entitlement. The water deal was seen as key to reducing the state’s overuse of the river.

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“There will be no surplus” if the Dec. 31 deadline is not met, Raley said.

State officials, including former Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), who acted as a mediator in negotiations in October involving Imperial, the San Diego water authority, Metropolitan, and the Coachella Valley Water District, said during the lengthy negotiations that the Legislature might disband the Imperial district if it balked at the deal.

In rejecting a proposed 75-year, $2-billion deal with San Diego on Monday night, Imperial board members said they bitterly resented what they perceived as threats made by Raley, Gov. Gray Davis and others in recent months to force them to sell their water at far below its value.

They also expressed fear that the pact would leave the district responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in restoration projects at the Salton Sea. The sea depends on agricultural runoff that would be substantially reduced if the water transfer were approved and less water was being used on crops.

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District board members said they were expecting retaliation by state and federal officials and were prepared to respond with litigation if necessary.

“I’ve been in the room when most of the threats have been made against the [Imperial district] and I take them seriously,” board member Andy Horne said.

‘Cooler Heads’

Board member Bruce Kuhn said, “I hope cooler heads will prevail.” He offered the prospect of a more limited deal, but the idea was immediately rejected by Raley.

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Raley brushed off a suggestion that he has alienated the Imperial Irrigation District in recent months by talking about cutbacks in the district’s water allocation or the possibility that individual farmers could make side deals to sell their water even if the district’s governing board objects.

“We’ve tried very hard over a few months not to say anything offensive to the Imperial Valley,” Raley said.

Hertzberg, now a lawyer in Sherman Oaks, predicted Tuesday that Imperial’s intransigence may unleash punitive efforts by legislators that could “substantially change the governmental structure of the district.”

Bills are being prepared in Sacramento that would allow private sales by farmers, thus undercutting the Imperial district’s dominance over water matters, Hertzberg said. “Bills introduced in the Legislature and actions by the federal government could make things much worse for them than they are now,” he said.

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State Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden), who is expected to be named chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Water committee, predicted hearings by the state water board into the Imperial district’s lavish use of water unless a compromise is reached by the Dec. 31 deadline.

“I find it almost numbing that the Imperial district would reject the contract and California could lose up to 15% of its water,” said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

Other states that use the Colorado River are demanding that California reduce its dependence on the river and stop receiving annual allocations of so-called surplus water that belong to other states.

The Dec. 31 deadline is part of a deal struck two years ago between California and six other Colorado River states that use the river.

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In exchange for signing the San Diego-Imperial deal, those states were willing to give California an additional 15 years of surplus water. The alternative is the “cold turkey” approach, with an immediate loss of surplus water.

Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, said, “We have three weeks to see if we can put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

Water Surplus

At risk is the 600,000 to 800,000 acre-feet of surplus water that the Metropolitan Water District has been receiving for years and, in turn, allocating to local agencies in six counties serving 17 million people. An acre-foot of water is enough to supply two families for a year.

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Metropolitan officials, although holding out hope that the San Diego-Imperial deal can be rescued, said the district has enough water in storage to offset the loss of surplus water for two years.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan governing board voted to move ahead with plans for seawater desalination, expanded ground-water storage, and other water conservation measures. The actions had been planned long before the Imperial vote Monday night.

Even before Monday’s vote, officials in other states were petitioning the federal government not to back down on the Dec. 31 deadline.

On Tuesday, that insistence escalated, along with expressions of incredulity that the Imperial Irrigation District could scuttle a deal that was seven years in the making and that was tentatively adopted by all four California water agencies involved on Oct. 15.

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“I’m amazed,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority. “How do you sit in the negotiations and agree and then go home and vote against it? Imperial is like the Keystone Kops of the water community.”

Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District, said Imperial “is playing with fire in terms of inflicting damage on the California economy.”

Despite the escalating rhetoric, there were signs Tuesday that the four parties may resume negotiations.

Dennis Underwood, Colorado River specialist for the Metropolitan district, and John Carter, lead attorney for the Imperial district, were said to be arranging a meeting.

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In the Imperial Valley, few elected officials will admit to being implacably opposed to selling some water.

The county Board of Supervisors has voted to support a water deal if certain safeguards are in the contract, including the option to back out of the deal.

When those conditions were not in the deal presented Monday, individual board members expressed opposition.

Ronald Gastelum, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan district, said the district is ready to resume negotiations if Imperial will provide a list of its complaints.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Water worries

The Metropolitan Water District stands to lose the surplus water it takes from the Colorado River each year if an agreement between the Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority isn’t completed by Dec. 31.

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Southern California’s primary water sources (in millions of acre-feet)

Colorado River: 1.2

State Water Project: 1.2

Local sources: 1.0

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Mono Basin/Owens Valley: 0.3 (approximate)


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